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It doesn’t matter if you’re two months or 20 years into your career. If you’re a freelancer in the creative industry, you’ve probably been asked by someone to do free work in exchange for exposure.

Working for exposure has become so normalized in the creative industry that many businesses and individuals come to expect it. For example, when a brand offers a work opportunity in exchange for exposure, they imply that they have such a large following that they will help you reach a larger audience than usual and therefore find new clients. However, those new clients likely won’t end up as paying clients either, because now they know that you will do free work in exchange for exposure.

Unfortunately, the problem has gotten worse over the years, especially as the freelance and small business market has become more competitive. More people are turning to freelance work as a side job at the same time as a burst in influencer culture. This has led to the normalization of “free work for exposure,” as businesses seek out influencers to market their products in exchange for free product, and vice-versa as influencers seek out businesses for free services. While that could be a strategically sound strategy in some cases, it perpetuates the cycle of asking for free work from those who are not looking to do so.

The culture of free work is and has always been especially damaging for early-career creatives. When you’re just starting out your freelance career, it can be hard to gain the right experience so that you can keep moving up and get better jobs. Ideally, you would increase your rates as you gain more years of experience in your field, but how do you gain experience when nobody wants to pay you for your work because you don’t have any previous experience?

Sometimes, you get a prospective client who reaches out with a cool project. You’re excited about the work but during your conversation with them, you tiptoe around the somewhat awkward question – what’s their budget? All too often, the answer is the infamous zero.

“As a nail artist,” said Milica Dodic, who is based in Toronto, “I have been approached by several people and businesses for free products and services, often with the ‘potential’ of exposure – not even a guarantee.”

Entitled individuals and influencers aren’t the only ones asking for free work – businesses also do it and it happens in personal relationships.

“When I see an opportunity that resonates with me, I reach out, take time out of my day to hop on a call to learn more about the project scope, just to find out that it is not paid work,” said Abigail Regucera, a web and graphic designer in Markham, Ont. “Everyone’s time is valuable in this world, and not disclosing this information takes away time from the freelancer and the company.”

Even more jarring is when your friends and family know that you’re a freelancer and ask you to provide your services to them as a favour. What they need to know is that your career is not just a hobby. Creating art can be exhausting, and when you’re creating art for someone else, it’s even less fun.

“Recently, a family friend asked if I would draw her family. I sent her my rates and she asked why I was charging,” said Stephanie Casino-Esguerra, a professional illustrator located in Brampton, Ont. “I just replied that my artwork is never free, and I asked her if she would ever work on anything for 3-5 hours with no pay.”

There is a right time and place to do free work. As a creative freelancer, you can build your portfolio and support a cause you believe in by volunteering for a non-profit organization. You can give your services to your friends or family as a gift and they can also support you by sharing your work with acquaintances or colleagues who may be in the market for your services as a paying client.

There’s no excuse whether you’re an individual or a business. If you own a business that’s just starting out and you don’t have enough of a budget, be upfront about it. You may consider offering an honorarium or trading your own business’s services. Do not try to negotiate a freelancer’s rates or ask them for free work. This is our livelihood, and exposure doesn’t pay our rent or bills.


Karen K. Tran is a writer, photographer, and various odd-job freelancer based in Guelph. She graduated from the University of Guelph in 2018.Handout

Karen K. Tran is a writer, photographer, and various odd-job freelancer based in Guelph. She graduated from the University of Guelph in 2018. She is the leadership lab columnist for May 2021.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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